What it’s really like to work in the charity sector

Matt Horwood works at Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity. THT aims to end HIV transmission in the UK, and to empower and support people living with HIV to lead healthy lives. Here, he tells NME #Lifehacks with University of Salford all about his career journey in the not-for-profit sector.

You’re Head of Media and PR at Terrence Higgins Trust. What exactly does this role involve?

“As Head of Media and PR at the charity, I oversee its PR, social media and internal communications functions. This means I’m responsible for developing messaging, responding or contributing to relevant news stories, planning and executing PR campaigns to generate coverage of our work, growing our social media presence, and ensuring that internally, staff feel in the loop with what one another are doing and the direction the organisation is taking.”

How did you get into this kind of work?

“Most of my experience is in the not-for-profit sector. Previously I worked for Stonewall, the UK’s leading LGBT equality charity – I was there for over three and a half years. I started at Stonewall as its Communications Assistant and worked my way up, holding three different job titles during my time there. Before Stonewall, I was at Comic Relief as Communications Assistant for a project called Proving Progress, which is about demonstrating some of the fantastic work that public support enables Comic Relief to do.

“Comic Relief was my first full-time job in London. Before that, I spent my late teens and early twenties in Manchester. There, I was Communications Assistant for Visit Manchester, organising press visits for journalists, and before that, Press Officer for Manchester Pride. This was my first full-time role in PR and involved interviewing performers, securing coverage of the event and looking after accredited media. I also volunteered on a number of media projects, including working as Media Manager for Pride House Manchester during the Sochi Winter Olympics.”

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career so far?

“Just like lots of people in the earlier stages of working in PR and communications, I think my biggest obstacle was learning how to manage my time and workload efficiently. Often people think that ‘time management skills’ means being able to get everything done, but it doesn’t. Actually, it often means getting some things done, but not others.

“Learning how to prioritise tasks, plan your time efficiently and push back on unrealistic expectations gives you a bit more space to breathe, and it also helps you to step back and think about your work strategically. You’ll achieve better work that’s more thought-through, meaningful and not littered with mistakes.”

What do you think are the benefits of working in the charity sector?

“The people! People who choose to work in the charity sector do it because they care. They care about what their organisation’s mission and values are, and they care about their role in helping achieve those goals. Working with colleagues who look forward to coming to work and want to spend their weeks impacting positive change in the world is fantastic. You’re part of the same cause, you’re one big team.

“This extends beyond staff, too. It includes the wonderful people who benefit from your organisation, whose stories really demonstrate how brave and courageous normal human beings can be. It also includes the volunteers who give up hour after hour to support what you do, without asking for anything back. In a world where there’s a lot going on at the moment, the charity sector is a place where people come together with one shared goal: to support others and make things a little brighter.”

And are there any particular challenges that come with working for a charity?

“Small and medium-sized charities in particular have a huge amount of work to do at the best of times, often with very small budgets and very few people. It isn’t enough to just ‘do your day job’, you truly have to be punching above your weight at all times. This can mean taking on roles and responsibilities that fall out of your remit. You might have to help another team fold and pack merchandise during Pride season, work on coat-check at your charity’s big fundraising event, or make sure you’re trained to take calls from people phoning the charity for guidance and support.

“None of these are negative experiences – quite the opposite, they let you fully immerse yourself in the organisation and learn all about how it functions. The challenge is making sure you maintain a decent work-life balance and hold back enough time for your own tasks and priorities.”

What advice would you give to a young person who’d like to work in this sector?

“Learn which organisations want to address the issues that are closest to your heart and, if you’re able to, volunteer with them and learn more about what they do. Volunteering opportunities aren’t always limited to office hours, so it’s possible to spend time supporting organisations while holding down full-time work. If you’re interested in PR or social media roles within the sector, find grassroots organisations that are run by volunteers – they might have a range of roles and responsibilities you can help with.

“Also, make sure your mind is news-focused. If you don’t already, start keeping up with what’s going on in the world. This can be as easy as following a range of news sources on social media and just being aware about what they’re saying. See if there are opportunities to talk to professionals who were in your shoes a few years ago and are now holding down the sort of career you’d like to have in the future. You might be able to do this through your college, university or local community groups. Ask for a bit of advice – you’d be surprised how many professionals are happy to give it to you.

“And do it your way. There’s no right or wrong way to being a communications professional: we are all different and have different ways of working with people. It’s what makes the discipline such an interesting one!”

Find out more about Terrence Higgins Trust on the organisation’s website. Follow Matt on Twitter @matthewhorwood